In the 1973 Wood Memorial, the racing world was shocked when Secretariat, the 1972 Horse of the Year, finished a well-beaten third in his final prep race for the Kentucky Derby. It happens all the time. A brilliant horse will lose one of the big Derby prep races, and suddenly, "the talk" begins. It starts as a murmur, then grows to a roar: "he's already peaked," "he can't go the distance," "he's never really beaten anyone," "he's unsound" — so on it goes. Suspicions turn to rumors, and there goes faith spinning down the drain. Horses are allowed to lose prep races. After all, what does the word "preparation" mean? It's all about getting fit and raking up graded earnings, not "all or nothing."
If you missed last Saturday's blitz of three-year-old races, you missed out on a brilliant race by Friesan Fire, a dull win by Pioneer of the Nile, and the biggest stunner on the Derby trail thus far: for the first time in his career, Old Fashioned was defeated. Eight lengths in front of the third-place horse, the gray looked as if he was once again in line for a dominating win. But then this dark horse came out of nowhere, and before anyone could look down at their Racing Form to see who the phantom was, Old Fashioned was passed by the 56–1 longshot. Does this mean that Old Fashioned is now old news? Certainly not. What it does mean is that Old Fashioned isn't invincible, which only creates more drama on the Derby trail.
Just when you think you're getting an idea of the complexion of what the Kentucky Derby will look like, a monkey wrench is thrown into the equation. Meet Mafaaz, the newest horse to win his Derby ticket. No, this isn't the horse who beat Old Fashioned; this is the horse who won the Kentucky Derby Challenge over at England's Kempton Park, and in doing so, won an automatic entrance into the Kentucky Derby. Not only are the "Powers That Be" holding this special challenge for the first time over the pond, the Brits are given a $100,000 incentive to race the winner in the Kentucky Derby to make America's premiere race for three-year-olds more "international." Yes, this is quite essentially, a load of quintessential b.s. Even funnier is that Mafaaz won over Kempton's synthetic track, and is now targeted toward the Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland's Polytrack. This horse is not going to know what dirt looks like before he vans over to Churchill. This isn't Santa Anita, baby. Welcome to America.
Speaking of dirt-dodgers, this weekend is the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park. Here, a second-rate field of three-year-olds will vie for a $500,000 purse and a spot in the Derby gates. Notice half the challengers consist of California horses who've barely seen that brown stuff beneath grass, and are clinging to the familiar fake track like a security blanket. This includes the two morning-line favorites West Side Bernie and Bittel Road. Last time out, West Side Bernie finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes 3 ¾ lengths behind the winner, Saratoga Sinner. Bernie hasn't won since September, when he won the Jockey Cup Juvenile at Turfway. Bittel Road was last seen in fourth place behind Pioneer of the Nile, I Want Revenge, and Chocolate Candy in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Bittel Road has not won since October, when he took the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland. But Garret Gomez is flying in from California to ride Bittel Road, so the colt gains major interest in light of the jock's vote of confidence.
My betting advice for the Lane's End: watch the jockeys. Julien Leparoux has been on a roll as of late, and his mount, Jack Spratt, will likely turn up a huge price if he steals a bit o' the money this Saturday. I also like Loch Dubh for an upset. He's won at this track before, and Calvin Borrel knows how to get the job done. Loch Dubh was set to finish a decent fourth in the Southwest before being taken over by Flat Out in the final few strides of the race. Maybe a turf-like feel is what he needs.
The Lane's End Stakes will be aired live on ESPN2. The telecast is scheduled to begin at 5:00 p.m. ET and will also feature the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway.